Excitement in the classroom lifted the chatter among some of the brightest freshmen at Olathe North High School to a level that led teacher Gail Brumback to push the door closed.
It was the last day students in the school’s Distinguished Scholars program would have to finish poster boards they’d been preparing about each of the 42 countries represented in the school’s student body. The multiracial mix of students worked in groups gathered around desks, some kneeling on the floor and debating design approaches for displaying their culture boards at North’s fifth annual Cultural Fair last month.
The event is one way the scholars have found to expand their knowledge about people from other lands and how they live. Opening their minds to learning about cultures other than their own is important to these students.
Olathe North is one of the most ethnically and economically diverse high schools in Johnson County. For some, that was the reason they chose to attend Olathe North in the first place. They came for a chance to mingle in a racially, economically and socially diverse environment that mirrors the world outside the neighborhood they live in.
For others the diversity was a welcome benefit they discovered amid the school’s busy halls, in the classrooms and cafeteria.
“Here, once you start opening your mind to new ideas it just keeps going,” said freshman Rachel Mickey.
Students in Rachel’s neighborhood attend Olathe South High School. But she chose North when she was accepted into its Distinguished Scholars program.
And “because it’s more diverse,” she said. “People are really accepting of all different people because there are all different people here. I’m gay, so I find I can be open here and it’s really great.”
In a predominantly white county, many Joco students are looking to incorporate as much diversity as possible into their high school experience. Some, like Rachel, choose to attend a diverse school like Olathe North. But even in the county’s wealthiest and whitest high schools, students find ways to infuse diversity into their day.
Diverse schools bring about more robust classroom discussions, promote critical thinking, improve problem-solving skills and promote higher academic achievement, said Virginia Commonwealth University Assistant Professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, who is an adviser to the National Coalition on School Diversity.
“Skills gained in diverse settings are becoming ever more important as the country’s demographics are rapidly changing,” Siegel-Hawley wrote in a research brief made public in 2012 by the National Coalition on School Diversity.
In the 1970s, white students were roughly 80 percent of the national public school enrollment, but today they are less than 54 percent.
Consider that the total Hispanic population in Johnson County grew about 117 percent from 2000 to 2011; the Asian population grew about 80 percent, and the African American population grew about 10 percent. That growth in diverse populations was reflected in the county’s schools. Today in the Shawnee Mission district, 69 different languages are spoken. In Olathe schools it’s 72.
Still there are some schools in the county with little ethnic, racial or economic diversity. Such pockets exist across the country, not just in Johnson County.
And sometimes, when diversity is low, “families in those areas wishing to maximize the academic and social benefits of education for their children seek out diverse schools, expecting their own children will be strongly advantaged by the experience,” Siegel-Hawley said.
Take Shawnee Mission East High School.
The school draws the bulk of its student body from some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county. Only 25 of the 1,808 students are African American, and a mere 10 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.
History teacher David Muhammad, one of three black teachers at Shawnee Mission East, leads an after-school club — Coalition — that is student-driven and attracts socially conscious students who are not afraid to admit their ignorance about some other cultures, even races. Admitting you don’t know opens the door for someone to educate you, Coalition students said.
Muhammad, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School — which wasn’t very diverse when he went there a decade ago, but where one in three students now is nonwhite — encourages his students to question cultural, racial and social insensitivity. He challenges them on their own cultural missteps.
When a student walks up to Muhammad, 26, and puts on what he thinks is a gangster swag — hunched over, arms swaying — and starts the conversation sounding like a hip-hop rapper, with “Yo, yo what’s up Mr. Muhammad?” Muhammad’s quick response is, “Why would you approach me that way? Would you talk to any of your white teachers like that? Probably not.” The scenario plays out each year, Muhammad says, when a new flock of freshmen fill the hallways.
When students mistook the poster of former South African President Nelson Mandela hanging in his classroom for actor Morgan Freeman, that’s when Muhammad realized the urgency of his responsibility to help students who wanted to explore other cultures.
To that end, Coalition students raised money to bring a documentary about the treatment of women around the world to the school, while others have traveled to Third World countries doing service learning projects. And in Muhammad’s classroom after school, they talk.
“I think when you have experiences with different types of people it opens your world,” said senior Alex Goldman.
“When we first moved into the Shawnee Mission East district my mother wanted us to go to East,” said Grace Bridges. “It’s a really good school, but if she had any concerns, it was that there isn’t really any diversity.”
She noted that when she chooses a college, “It will be one that has a lot more diversity.”
Senior Geordy Williams, who is black and and popular among his schoolmates, has been in the district since elementary school.
“Black jokes come up all the time about me being fast on the soccer field,” Geordy said.
“Yeah,” said another Coalition member, who is white. He said he’d heard students joking that black athletes were fast because they had extra muscles or tendons in their legs. The students laughed at the ridiculousness of the notion.
“It hurt freshman year,” Geordy said. “I brushed it off, saying to myself. ‘Oh well, they probably just haven’t been around many black kids.’”
He has wondered whether ignoring it is the right thing to do. He is a soccer player. And he
fast. Because he’s a hard worker, not because he’s black.
Club member and yearbook editor Helena Buchmann recalls an incident at a basketball game this year. After enduring a familiar chant that referred to the East students as privileged, some East students began calling an opposing player “2Chainz,” a popular black rapper. Helena said the students came up with the chant just because he was black.
“It wasn’t relevant to anything else,” Helena said. “I was really riled up about it. I told them it was racist. But they didn’t get it, and it boggled my mind.”
East students said they would love to see more racial diversity in their halls. “But we can’t help where we live,” said Brooke Fasbender, a junior. So they celebrate other types of diversity at their school — students who are passionate about sports or theater or music or art.
And students at the Prairie Village school reach out to surrounding communities as volunteers, said principal Karl Krawitz.
About 1,000 East students find diversity outside their district through a program called Share. In the club, started by the National Council of Jewish Women, East students travel to elementary schools in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., where 90 to 95 percent of students get free or reduced-priced lunches. East students throw birthday parties for the children and give them gifts, including books. The club, organized 12 years ago, allows East students to interact with students from a variety of backgrounds, said Krawitz, who has worked at East for five years after having worked at more diverse schools in the district and in Olathe schools.
The program’s mission is helping students find avenues for volunteering. Exposing students to diverse environments was never the main focus. “Diversity has just been a wonderful by-product of Share,” said Pat Kaufman, who runs the program at East.
Share is the most popular volunteer opportunity among East students.
“I love kids and love hanging out with them,” said Emma Robson, a senior volunteer with Share.
Recently at Noble Prentis Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., kindergartners celebrating their birthdays rushed to sit at the table with Emma. “When I ask them generic questions about their life, school, I always get a bit of their culture in their answer,” Emma said.
Ellen Dalen, chairwoman of the local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women, recalls how Share touched one East student from a prominent family. The teen’s family had given to charities that help poor children for years, but this was the first time he interacted with children who needed such help.
“He was so moved by the experience that he wrote his senior essay about it,” Dalen said. “It has been a tremendous impact on these kids to see so many kids who don’t even own a book or have never had a birthday party. It gives (East) kids a opportunity to see the other side of the street, that not every child is as fortunate as them.”
East principal Krawitz said many of his students recognize that “if you are going to get exposed to diversity, your chances of being exposed to it here are small unless you take advantage of programs like Share and Coalition.”
Certainly, not all Johnson County students need to seek out diversity. Consider Shawnee Mission North High School, where nearly 37 percent of students are other than white and overall 40 percent come from economically disadvantage homes.
Alison Banikowski, deputy superintendent for the Olathe district, doesn’t like the generalization that her schools, because they’re in Johnson County, are void of any diversity.
“I always wish people understood and would get the data,” Banikowski said.
“We are a diverse community not just racially but social economically too. We have a wide variety of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. I think sometimes our (school district’s) job is to eradicate the myth.”
With more than 28,200 students, Olathe overtook Shawnee Mission in 2011 as the largest school district in Johnson County and is the second-largest in all of Kansas.
Just over 60 percent of the 2,032 students at Olathe North High School are white, 21 percent are Hispanic and 12.25 percent are African American. That’s significant diversity in a county where only 4.7 percent of the overall population is African American and more than 82 percent is white. The population of students for whom English is a second language has increased every year in the Olathe district since 1996, going from 120 to 2,517 this year.
The racial diversity in the district is represented quite evenly among the four high schools.
But North is the Olathe high school with the greatest percentage of minority students. And at 42 percent, it is the school with the largest portion of students from economically disadvantaged households. It’s a diversity the district celebrates.
Maintaining diversity in the Olathe district, where in 2009 the estimated median home value was just under $195,000, was not necessarily a primary factor considered by administrators when boundaries were drawn and reconfigured in 2000 for the opening of a fourth high school — Olathe Northwest.
Nor was it considered, administrators said, when they decided where to place its 21st Century programs, which offer 12 areas of study geared to tapping students’ interests and passions. About 25 percent of the student body is enrolled in the programs, which allow students to transfer to the school housing their program.
But the programs have allowed students to factor diversity into their choice of school. The most selective program is Distinguished Scholars, located at Olathe North.
Disha Dasgupta, who is from India, said she wavered between choosing Olathe North and Olathe Northwest when selecting a high school to attend in the district.
“I felt Olathe North was better because it has a lot more diversity,” Disha said. “I felt I would fit in better here. I felt that race would be more appreciated here. I see so many non-Caucasian faces.”
Salem Habte, whose family is from Ethiopia, lives in the Olathe East High School attendance area but was happy when she was selected into the Distinguished Scholars program because it meant she would get to attend North. She looked past its reputation as “the ghetto school,” so called because of its diverse population and because it is surrounded by older, less expensive homes than are found in other subdivisions in the district.
“People who don’t go to North call it the ghetto school,” Salem said. “The reality is, it is not. It’s diverse, and that makes it a great school.”